Barack and Michelle Obama's fairy-tale love story has captured the
attention of the American public, but their special relationship is not
the first to exist within the halls of the White House. Long ago,
before tabloids and the Internet were around to report on it, there was
a president and a first lady whose extraordinary bond was one for the
ages: Abigail and John Adams.
It was a typical 18th-century love story that took place in a small town in Massachusetts, says historian Edith Gelles, author of Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage.
"There is no evidence that Abigail and John did not know about each other's families from childhood, just because in small communities like that, families tended to know each other," she says. "On the other hand, historically, the evidence demonstrates that John met Abigail when she was only 15. He was 10 years older than she, so he was 25. But as she grew older, John began noticing her as a possible romantic figure. She became attracted to him as well."
Abigail Smith and John Adams were married in 1764 and began a relationship extraordinary for their time, as well as for ours.
"Each of them was generous towards the other," she says. "Each one was giving towards the other and sacrificed for each other and respected each other."
The couple lived apart for most of the second decade of their marriage, between 1774 and 1784. John was in Europe while Abigail remained in Massachusetts, raising their children. As Gelles explains, they had to conduct their relationship through letters, which were one of the most important sources she relied on to help her portray their marriage.
"Sometimes, it was only one or two letters a year because the letters were lost or didn't make it across the ocean," she says. "You can hear them having a conversation in letters. Their letters reflected probably the way they talked to each other. What's remarkable about that relationship is that when they did get together again, it was as if there had been no break in their marriage."
When John Adams became America's second president in 1797, Abigail played an instrumental role in supporting her husband.
"They were an extremely compatible couple," she says. "Abigail, who didn't really want to go on serving the public after John's vice-presidency, did so because she never questioned John's public service. She was loyal to him. She became his closest confidant and, probably, advisor. I think he was a very strong president. He made decisions on his own, but he didn't have political allies with him in the capital who could advise him.
"Abigail was his best ally, and because she was intelligent, well-informed and totally sympathetic with him, she was devoted to his politics. She probably was the best-informed and most reliable advisor to a president until Eleanor Roosevelt in the 20th century."
Gelles also credits Abigail Adams with defining the role of the first lady, even before the term was used.
"As first lady, she established many of the protocols, which survived. She wrote about having to have dinners, in which she entertained all the members of the Senate and their wives, and the House of Representatives and their wives, and the Supreme Court and their wives," she says. "She also had to have a great Fourth of July party, in which everyone in the neighborhood of the capital city was invited to attend. So she was a great social arbiter."
Gelles spent 30 years doing research for Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage. She says she got a sense for why their marriage worked so well.
"I think it partially happened because there was no 'exit clause' for marriage," she says. "There was no divorce except under very special circumstances. But it also had to do with their personalities and their characters and the fact that they deeply cared for each other and that there was so much compatibility between them, so very much devotion to each other's lives."
Gelles points to other devoted couples and other strong first ladies who have lived in the White House over the past two centuries - including Michelle and Barack Obama.
"Their relationship appears beautiful to me, in many ways similar to the Adams' relationship, in that they are playful with one another," she says. "They are affectionate towards one another, intellectually compatible. Michelle seems a very strong person. It appears that Michelle is still carving out her role as first lady. She is sacrificing her independence to serve as first lady. This is, after all, not an elected office, it's an office that comes to a woman because of the marriage contract. It's a heavy role to have to fulfill."
Professor and author Edith Gelles says she hopes couples everywhere - not only politicians - can learn from Abigail and John Adams. Their relationship, she says, remains an example of how married people can support each other, help each other navigate through tough times and enjoy their life together.